(Be Careful Not To) Trip The Light Fantastic
Published 5 years ago
A chat with traveling husband-and-wife development team Northway Games, hard at work on the virtual reality rendition of its hit Flash game, Fantastic Contraption
A chat with traveling husband-and-wife development team Northway Games, hard at work on the virtual reality rendition of its hit Flash game, Fantastic Contraption
“We sold everything and started traveling in 2010, after Colin’s browser-based puzzle game Fantastic Contraption took off,” says Sarah Northway, one half of Northway Games (with her aforementioned husband, Colin). Theirs is not quite the standard office environment that game development has long found itself holed up in, but it’s been working so far. “Traveling has kept us on our toes for the last five years—we move every two-to-three months, and our daily routines change drastically in each place.”The Northways have been developing games on their own terms since that initial hit. Titles like Word Up Dog, Incredipede, Rebuild, and Deep Under the Sky show a broad set of styles and approaches, from the latter’s one-button psychedelic arcade sensibilities to the former, a rather unusual “digging spelling” game.
In cities they stop in, the Northways meet other indie game developers and spend lots of time exploring and socializing; games like Sarah’s post-apocalyptic city builder Rebuild are inspired by some of the cities they've visited. In more remote areas, the two hike and swim a lot, which also shows up in their work, such as the game Incredipede: you play a creature who can change her form to solve puzzles, surrounded by a vast diversity of plant and animal life that they experienced in the tropics.
To take a vertical slice of their lives, the Northways spent November 2014 through January 2015 in South Africa (“It was an amazing time, at the height of their summer—did we mention that we don’t like winter?” Sarah says). They met a likeminded indie game community in Cape Town, and worked on Rebuild 3 both from home and out of their friends’ offices at QCF Design. “Then we disconnected—something we almost never do—and took a week-long, internet-free road trip around Namibia. It was an unforgettable place, a constant barrage of alien landscapes and mind-blowing animal encounters. Worth not checking our email for a few days!”
Next up was Bali, Indonesia for the spring of 2015, which provided yet another unique cultural experience. “We got into a groove of waking up with the birds—more specifically, the roosters—and falling asleep when the sun set,” Sarah says. “We walked through the rice paddies when we needed to think or relax. I was crunching on Rebuild 3 by that time, so relaxation was much needed.”
One thing the pair wasn’t able to do while traveling, however, was to make games for specific hardware like consoles or VR. Everything they owned had to fit into two backpacks, including their laptops and other electronics. So for five years, they focused on PC and mobile games, so they could test with what they had on hand. That changed a few months back, when the duo switched to semi-nomadic and got an apartment in Vancouver, Canada. Staying in one place—for at least half the year—has given them the chance to work on a Fantastic Contraption VR sequel for the HTC Vive.
The original, Flash-based Fantastic Contraption web game, which was released in 2008, came from a dream Colin had after playing quite a bit of a game called Armadillo Run—a puzzle title where players design a Rube Goldberg-esque level to guide a rolling armadillo to a goal. “Colin wondered what would happen if instead of building the terrain around the armadillo, you built the armadillo itself,” Sarah says, and Fantastic Contraption was born. A physics-based 2D experience, players are tasked to assemble contraptions, with the goal of moving certain objects past obstacles and into the goal area. The game has since made its way to iOS.
Fast-forward seven years: After trying the HTC Vive for the first time in June 2015, the Northways left the Valve offices dazed and excited. “We loved the big motions of Tilt Brush, dancing around a room creating virtual things with your own two hands,” Sarah recalls. Colin had been thinking of the possibility of a Fantastic Contraption sequel, and suddenly it seemed like a perfect fit for the room-scale VR experience. Almost immediately, they teamed up with their friends at Radial Games to begin development on the VR title, with the intention finishing it in time for the Vive launch. Fantastic Contraption is a collaboration between Northway Games and Radial Games, with Gordon McGladdery providing sound. (“We often have to work with at least one other person to do the art, since the two of us are both programmers with only nominal art skills,” Sarah points out.) 
VR development has been rather unexpectedly easy, according to the developers. “In Unity, you just install the Steam VR tools and you're good to go with either the Vive or Oculus headsets,” Sarah says. “We didn't have a Vive or any kind of hand controller at first, so we devised a way to ‘drive’ the two hands around using a mouse or an Xbox controller. Barring the hardware issues and software bugs which come with any kind of prototype device, our biggest challenge is still being able to develop for VR without being in VR at all times. It takes some imagination!”
As expected, the developers are perfecting the art of making their money go a long way. “We’re primarily funding Contraption from sales of Rebuild 3, which was a big success earlier this year,” Sarah says. “We're keeping our budget tight, our timeline short, and our options open regarding platforms and publishing.” They're talking to all the major VR companies, and may work out deals to fund porting the game to specific hardware that they wouldn't have time for otherwise.
But actually money has been a secondary concern with Fantastic Contraption VR. “We and Radial decided to create [this game] because VR is an exciting and fun space to work in, and [because] the experience and publicity will be useful for future projects,” Sarah says. (On that second front, as this article can partially attest, the game is already a stunning success.) “We agreed that making money is a distant third goal this time, mainly because we have so little control over it. Our sales numbers will be a direct result of how well VR headsets sell next year, and even if every single Vive owner buys Contraption, how many will that be?”
The gameplay for Fantastic Contraption came together quickly. “We love that the game is so easy to explain to players, because it feels so much like real life: grab a thing, drag it over there, attach it to that other thing, etc.” Challenges have come from unexpected places, such as the game’s menu system: “We don't want traditional flat text menus for saving, loading, settings and so on—we want the entire game including saving and changing levels to be a delightful VR experience that plays in real space,” Sarah says. “We're putting a lot of effort into this, and if it works we might end up defining a standard that other VR games will use in the future.”
In terms of the guiding design philosophies and inspirations fueling Northway Games, Sarah says the duo is all over the place. “I have my games (turn-based strategy, word games, card games), and Colin has his (physics and building games, platformers),” she explains. “Colin's games are more on the competitive and challenging side, and I have a love of roguelikes and randomness that permeates my designs. But the one thing that really unites them all is they were made by two people with the same last name!”
So was there a specific goal to become one of the first proper finished VR game developers out there? “We’ve played with seated or standing desk-experience VR in the past, but it didn't grip it,” Sarah says. “It seemed like a lot of developers were using VR as a fancy 3D monitor you strap to your face, designing the same kinds of games we've made in the past but enhancing them with a larger field of view. But when we tried room-scale VR with hands—the hands are super important—all bets were off. This was something new. You could feel yourself present inside the space. You were actually there. And here was a new challenge to design a game that plays out in your living room…after you move your coffee table aside and push your couch back a little.”
Fantastic Contraption VR is likely the first of many VR experiences the small team has in store. “We believe that virtual and/or augmented reality represents the future of games, but for the immediate future—well, that depends on how successful VR hardware sales are next year,” Sarah says. “We’re super excited and have a thousand ideas we want to try in VR, as well as ideas that could work in both VR and on regular PC screens.” Currently, the immediate plans are to polish Fantastic Contraption into perfection. “We want it to be the game that everyone recommends to their friends—the must have game for VR in 2016.”
Nathaniel Ventura
Product Marketing Manager - Marketer